WARDSVILLE, Mo. - The Eugene Eagles aren't used to playing low-scoring games.
A high-powered offense that averages nearly 77 points per game has been the driving force behind their 24-1 record and No. 3 ranking in Class 3.
The fourth-seeded California Pintos made life uncomfortable for the top-seeded Eagles on Thursday night, forcing them to play a game in the low 50s with their ball-control style.
So on a night when the offense wasn't clicking on all cylinders, it was Eugene's defense that held off a late California rally for a 53-52 victory in a Class 3 District 8 Tournament semifinal.
"Didn't shoot it particularly well tonight," Eugene head coach Craig Engelbrecht said. "But I guess you have to survive these kinds of games. Every road you have a game like this and hopefully this is our wakeup call."
California rallied from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 53-52 on a 3-pointer from Jaden Barr with 8.6 seconds left. After Eugene threw the ball away on the inbounds pass, California improbably had a shot to win the game.
"All you can ask for is one possession to win the game," California head coach Blair Scanlon said. "We had a great look at it. It's not lost or won on the last play, you just want to give yourself a chance to win. We had it and it didn't happen."
Eugene's Tyler Kempker blocked a shot out of bounds, but California still had possession underneath the basket with 3.9 seconds left. The Pintos got the ball in to the corner, as a couple Eugene defenders converged for a trap. Kempker then knocked the ball away to seal the victory.
"The guys did a really good job on that last possession," Engelbrecht said. "We had team fouls to give, so we were going to try to be very aggressive on fouling and not letting anybody get open. If they got anything close, cutting to the basket, just foul them and make them take it back out again.
"Tyler Kempker made a really good play there. They got a good trap and he knocked the ball away to help us play one more night."
California tried to milk the clock for the first three quarters before the Pintos were forced to speed up in the final quarter down 13.
California used 89 seconds of clock before getting off its first shot in the opening quarter, and 75 seconds to do the same in the third period.
"We word it as clock management," Scanlon said. "It's not a delay game. ... We have a secret plan of action nobody else knows about. Eugene doesn't want to guard for long periods of time, that's not what they do. They're high-scoring, high-octane. You make them guard and they start to overplay stuff. You start getting back-doors, you start getting drives. There's a philosophy to it. It looks like a delay, but really it's not."
It worked for a while in the early going before Eugene used an 11-0 run to go up 11-3. The Eagles took a 17-6 lead after one quarter.
"Teams have tried to run a lot of offense on their end of the floor. But one thing about California is they have a lot of good guards and they can handle the ball and they can spread the floor out," Engelbrecht said.
California began to chip away, cutting Eugene's lead to 24-17 at halftime. The Eagles were just 9-of-29 in the opening half, including a 3-of-13 mark from beyond the arc. Yet it was their defense - which forced 13 first-half turnovers - that made the difference early. California went an astounding 7-of-11 from the field in the first half.
"They slowed it down quite a bit," Kempker said. "It got us out of our usual fast-paced game. We like it up in the 80s."
California got within 30-28 on a 3-pointer from Cole George with 4:33 to go in the third period. Eugene responded with eight straight points, including a pair of 3s from Kempker.
"He's the one player that shot the ball really well," Engelbrecht said of Kempker, who went 5-of-8 from 3-point range and tied for a game-high with 20 points. "He's the one that kind of kept the distance that we needed to keep a 10-point lead throughout. He came up with big shots and free throws when we needed them. He stepped up huge tonight."
Eugene held a 40-31 edge heading into the final period. That's when things got interesting.
"I just told them to keep it within striking distance, give yourselves a chance," Scanlon said. "Because the later the game gets, you've got Versailles here, you've got Blair Oaks, they want you to beat Eugene. Then we started playing a little bit."
Four quick points from Eugene put the Eagles ahead 44-31 with 6:51 left. Then California stormed back.
"Eugene got a little tight," Scanlon said. "They were kind of playing scared to lose. Every team does it no matter how good they are. We hit some big shots. All our guys contributed. We kind of just hung around, hung around and they threw it away."
Barr scored nine of his 20 points in the final quarter, as the Pintos crept back in the game. California got within six on three occasions before Barr's putback made it 49-45 with 2:01 left.
Eugene still led by four with less than a minute to play when a layup from Dylan Albertson made it 51-49 with 28 seconds to go. After Eugene's Cody Shaw canned a pair of free throws with 22 seconds left, Barr hit his big 3 with 8.6 remaining.
"I thought defensively we did a really good job in the first half, third quarter," Engelbrecht said. "Fourth quarter I thought we had the thing going our way, and they ran a little better than we did when they actually had to get to playing basketball and getting up and down the floor."
Eugene, after committing just six turnovers in the first three quarters, coughed up the ball eight times in the final eight minutes, including on the ensuing inbounds pass with 7.4 seconds left.
"There are a lot of things we can go back and work on (today) too about handling the ball strong against the press," Engelbrecht said. "They sold out, they were just going hard to the basketball and you could tell with the looks on their faces they were here to win."
California had its chances in those final seconds. But it was Kempker and the Eugene defense that prevailed.
"Those were pretty big," Kempker said of his two game-saving plays.
Kempker was joined by Shaw (15) and twin brother Travis Kempker (10) in double figures.
George added 12 points for California, which ends the season at 18-8.
"Heck of a game man. They have a chance to be in the Final Four," Scanlon said. "I told people all year that our guys would be better toward the end of the year. We took a long time to get basketball acclimated. We had football guys, some injuries. I said at the end of the year we'll be pretty good. People wouldn't talk about us much, we were kind of middle of the pack, kind of laying in the weeds. And it showed tonight. If they didn't respect us tonight, they respect us now because we have everybody's attention."
Eugene (24-1) takes on Blair Oaks at 6 p.m. Saturday for the district title. The Eagles have beaten the Falcons twice this season - 78-74 and 86-72 -but both have been in Eugene. The Falcons boast hosting duties for the biggest meeting of them all.
"It should be an up-and-down affair," Engelbrecht said. "It will be a fun night."